Zambia - Submission to the African Committee of Experts On the Rights and Welfare of the Child

Children playing in Kabwe, Zambia.

43rd Ordinary Session

This submission relates to the review of the Republic of Zambia under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and focuses on the impact of lead pollution on children's rights.

Impact of Lead Pollution on Children's Rights (articles 5, 12, and 14)

Lead contamination around the former lead and zinc mine in the town of Kabwe continues to have disastrous effects on children's health, and action is urgently needed to protect child rights.[1]

Kabwe is one of the world's worst pollution hotspots because of contamination from a former lead and zinc mine established during the British colonial period.[2] The mine was closed in 1994, but toxic waste remains. Lead dust from its large, uncovered waste dumps blows across nearby residential areas, exposing up to 200,000 people to high levels of toxic lead.[3] The situation is compounded by small-scale and informal mining activities at the former mine site. Health researchers have estimated that over 95 percent of children living near the former mine in Kabwe have elevated lead levels in their blood. About half of them require urgent medical intervention.[4]

Children under age 5 and pregnant and breastfeeding women are among the most vulnerable to lead poisoning.[5] Among pregnant women, lead exposure can result in stillbirth, miscarriage, and low birth weight and can negatively affect the brain development of a fetus. The consequences for children include reading and learning barriers or disabilities; behavioral problems; impaired growth; anemia; brain, liver, kidney, nerve, and stomach damage; coma and convulsions; and death. More than 90 percent of lead stores are in bone, but pregnancy and lactation increase bone turnover, which may result in lead moving into the blood. As a result, "[s]ince bone lead stores persist for decades, women and their infants may be at risk for continued exposure long after exposure to external environmental sources has been terminated."[6] Calcium deficiency may increase bone turnover since maternal bone is a major source of calcium for the developing fetus and nursing infant.[7]

Poor children are disproportionately affected because undernourishment increases the amount of lead the body absorbs, and because many live in informal settlements that lack paved roads and planted areas that contain the lead dust.[8]

The government has a duty to ensure that human rights, including child rights, are protected in the context of business operations, and companies have a responsibility to respect human rights including child rights in their own operations and in their supply chains, and provide remedies when they have caused or contributed to adverse impacts.

In 2020, lawyers from South Africa and the United Kingdom filed a class action lawsuit in a South African court on behalf of affected children and women of child-bearing age in Kabwe.[9] The lawsuit seeks compensation, a lead-screening system for children and pregnant women, and remediation of the area. The lawsuit contends that the mine was operated and managed by the company Anglo American between 1925 and 1974, while Anglo American argues it did not own or operate the mine, but only provided "technical services."[10]

In December 2023, the South African High Court ruled against the case proceeding, describing it as an "unmanageable claim that would set a grave precedent."[11] Lawyers for the plaintiffs have announced they will appeal.

With a World Bank loan, Zambia's government has undertaken some limited efforts to address the contamination in Kabwe.[12] It has tested and treated some children and cleaned up a small number of homes and a highly polluted canal, but it has failed to clean up the source of the contamination.[13] As long as the waste dumps are not cleaned up, other measures are unsustainable, and progress made could be quickly reversed. Moreover, the government has licensed further mining and reprocessing activities that pose additional health risks to children.[14]

In March 2022, President Hakainde Hichilema instructed the Ministry of Green Economy and Environment to establish a technical committee to "address and lead the process of comprehensive remediation" in Kabwe. However, after an initial informal meeting in June 2022, the technical committee was never formally set up. In 2023, the ministry announced its intention to make Kabwe a "Green City" where economic development takes place "on top of buried lead surfaces."[15] But it remains unclear how the ministry is planning to turn this vision into reality.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask Zambia's government:

  • Has the government of Zambia taken steps to develop a comprehensive remediation plan for the containment or removal of lead waste at Kabwe mine?
  • What has the government of Zambia done to seek technical and financial support for the development and implementation of a comprehensive remediation plan?
  • Could the government provide an update on voluntary lead testing and (where clinically indicated) chelation treatment efforts in Kabwe, including the age range of children tested and treated, and future plans for testing and (where clinically indicated) treating older children and women of reproductive age?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon Zambia's government to:

  • Ensure that children who have suffered adverse impacts on their right to health have access to remedy.
  • Urgently suspend all mining operations and conduct a comprehensive remediation process at the former mine site to ensure the source of the contamination is contained or removed; in order to do so, seek technical and financial support for the development and implementation of a comprehensive remediation plan.
  • Remediate all contaminated schools, homes, and play areas, and report publicly about progress.
  • Provide affordable and accessible lead testing and (where clinically indicated) treatment, including chelation therapy, to all children and women of childbearing age in affected neighborhoods.
  • Track cases of child lead poisoning in Kabwe, including mortality, in the government's Health Management Information system or a separate database.

[1] See "Zambia: Government Stalling on Lead Cleanup Plan," Human Rights Watch news release, March 13, 2024,; "Zambia: Clean Up Toxic Lead Waste at Mine Site," Human Rights Watch news release, July 20, 2023,; and Human Rights Watch, "We Have to Be Worried": The Impact of Lead Contamination on Children's Rights in Kabwe, Zambia (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2019),

[2] Vojtech Ettler et al., "Slag dusts from Kabwe (Zambia): Contaminant mineralogy and oral bioaccessibility," Chemosphere 260:127642, December 2020, (accessed March 27, 2024).

[3] Daichi Yamada et al., "Assessing the population-wide exposure to lead pollution in Kabwe, Zambia: an econometric estimation based on survey data," Scientific Reports 10: 15092, September 2020, (accessed March 27, 2024).

[4] Stephan Bose-O'Reilly et al., "Lead intoxicated children in Kabwe, Zambia," Environmental Research, vol. 165, 2018, pp. 420-424, (accessed March 3, 2024).

[5] United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Children's Environmental Health Collaborative, "Lead poisoning" (webpage), 2024, (accessed March 27, 2024).

[6] United States Department of Health and Human Services, Guidelines for the Management of Lead in Pregnant and Lactating Women, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 2010, (accessed April 2, 2024), p. 1.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See, for example, Human Rights Watch, "We Have to Be Worried": The Impact of Lead Contamination on Children's Rights in Kabwe.

[9] "Anglo American sued on behalf of children and women poisoned by the world's most toxic lead mine," Leigh Day news release, October 21, 2020, (accessed March 27, 2024).

[10] "Our position on the Kabwe legal claim," AngloAmerican, [n.d.], (accessed March 27, 2024).

[11] High Court of South Africa Case No. 2020/32777, available at (accessed March 27, 2024).

[12] World Bank, "Zambia - Mining and Environmental Remediation and Improvement Project (P154683)," Implementation Status & Results Report, January 12, 2024, (accessed March 27, 2024).

[13] Zambia: Government Stalling on Lead Cleanup Plan," Human Rights Watch news release.

[14] Submission by Human Rights Watch to the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Marcos Orellana regarding toxics and gender, March 29, 2024,

[15] Zambian Ministry of Green Economy and Environment, Facebook post, March 2, 2023, (accessed March 27, 2024).

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